Re: Family

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Thu, 2 May 1996 13:11:54 -0400

In a message dated 96-05-01 19:14:37 EDT, JLM@TWICS.COM (John McCreery)

>(2) To see the extended or nuclear family as a free association
>based on "principles of solidarity and equality" is attractive. Meyer
>Fortes made a similar idea "the axiom of amity" a centerpiece in
>his later work on kinship systems. The "family," then, is
>composed of those who share resources --prototypically food
>cooked at the same fire-- freely and are morally bound to come to
>each other's aid, without calculating risk and compensation. It is,
>here, precisely that the penetration of the market and
>commodification of relations can be said to erode the principles
>on which "family" is based. When everything comes down to
>who owes who what, "family" in this ideal sense, has indeed
>(3) There is, of course, the other, darker side to "family." The
>internal relations of dominance: parent over child, man over
>woman. The idea that the family is a "free association" is a
>wonderful ideal but may be a lousy description of reality in a
>world where, to quote the old ironic proverb, "We get to choose
>our friends. The Devil gives us our relatives."
Peter and Brigitte Berger argue in _The war over the family: Capturing the
middle ground_ ( New York: Anchor/Doubleday. 1983) that the real social
solvents are cultural values -- what they call hyper-individualism and
hyper-rationalism. In some ways, the state reinforces these values but it
does not create them. Rather, they are most closely associated with what the
Bergers' call the "knowledge class" (i.e., you and me). The knowledge class
was spawned by the bourgeois family but has become is determined opponent.

According to the Bergers, the bourgeois or middle-class family developed in
early modern Europe. It provided the context in which persons, as opposed to
whole households, began to respond to new economic opportunities. In
responding, individuals also began disengaging from the communal family. The
contract, with its implied limits of allegiance, both symbolized and
furthered the rise of this ethos:

"As these processes matured, the old unity of the household was dissolved,
with enormous consequences for the family.... Individuals within the family
were 'liberated' to experiment with novel and even revolutionary roles. This
'liberation' affected the relations between spouses, and between the latter
and their children." (Berger and Berger 1983: 97).

Even so, these developments bred their own discontents. While the bourgeois
era was producing a rising standard of living, making the home a focus for
self-realization, enshiring childhood as a time of protected liberation, and
empowering women as civic, ethical, and moral activists, it was also
fostering its own demise:

"The very values of the bourgeois family ethos...had within them the seeds of
their own destruction. Individualism, brought forth within the family, would
turn against it. Education would free itself of its family linkage and
burgeon into powerful institutions with an anti-family animus, or at least
with vested interests antagonistic to those of the family." (p. 103)

The emerging knowledge class pushed individualism and rationalism to
extremes. Hyper-individualism became a biographical engineering principle,
legitimated "brutal assertions of the self against the claims of others," (p.
120) and fostered many legal and social reforms geared to insulate the
individual from such claims. (The state enters here.) In some forms of
psychotherapy, particularly those associated with the "personal liberation"
or "self-realization" industry, the family came to be viewed as just one more
of the "alienating prisons of collective institutions" (p.121), to be used or
discarded in favor of support groups more conducive to the individual's
project of self-development -- "the therapeutic group, or the sisterhood
collective, or the political cell." (p. 122)

Likewise rationalism -- embodied in the scientific method -- was turned back
on social forms. But whereas quantification and experiment "were indeed
'liberating' as they were applied to man's natural they
applied to man himself and to the most private sphere of his life, they come
to be experienced as oppressive, even as dehumanizing.... The engineering
mentality...invades [social and] family life, including the crucial area of
socialization." (p.118).

Indeed, most of the helping institutions, and especially governmental
services, are structured in a highly "rational" and specialized manner. The
family is abstracted from the community and, within the family, one
functional "system" is abstracted from another. Each area acquires its own
specialists. For example, "community development" workers are separate from
(family-level) "income maintenance" caseworkers are separate from "child
protective" caseworkers are separate from "preventive services" caseworkers
are separate from "homemaker services" caseworkers, and so on. The ability
to see the family and the community "in the round," and to propose integrated
solutions, is lost in this hyper-specialized, hyper-rational, (and
hyper-bureaucratic) world.

My point is, it's not so much that government somehow "conspires" to keep
people isolated in nuclear families in order to better control them. The
left hand can hardly see what the right is doing, let alone orchestrate
anything. Rather, government policies respond to the hyper-individualism and
hyper-rationalism that pervade society's leading classes.

The issue I've been raising lately is that what we're seeing increasingly now
is hyper-individualism with an attitude. My individualism -- my very life --
is somehow, in some way, diminished or violated by yours. Hence, I am
somehow a victim of unfairness. This is a now commonly encountered mode of
thinking, almost dominating public discourse. Don't get me wrong, there
certainly is injustice and oppression in the world, but it seems we can often
no longer agree on what they are (let alone on how to resolve them) because
there is no longer sufficient consensus on "who owes what to whom" (to put a
different, but not opposed, spin on a point made above by John McCreery).
Reread the kids' quotes in Dwight Read's _LA Times_ articles. In Habermas's
terms, we really do suffer from a "crisis of legitimacy" that, in its
implications, goes far beyond the "crisis of illegitimacy" that is now front
and center.

Imagine how hyper-individualism and the crisis of legitimacy might play out
over the next 50 years in an America undergoing a profound demographic shift.
Consider social security (which in some ways resembles a grant and in some
ways delayed reciprocity between younger and older generations). Many people
think that social security will be "guaranteed" them in their old age: "I put
money in; I'm entitled to that money back when I'm old." Not quite. The
money you put in now doesn't hang around waiting for you. It's paid out to
the currently elderly. Today's workers support today's retirees. (And, by
the way, some of those now on social security have already received much more
in benefits than they paid in while they were working.) Fortunately, right
now the ratio of paying workers to receiving elderly is still relatively high
(I think, but don't quote me, something like 6:1). In the (relatively) near
future, it will decline to an estimated (2:1). As that day arrives, there
will be tremendous political pressure both to maintain and to cut benefits.
The elderly will be saying "I put in, I should get back." The working
generation will say, "why should I have to pay so much more than you had to
pay?" And "why didn't you look ahead and save more so that you could support
yourself?" And "why should my kids have to suffer so that you can live
better?" What is legitimate and fair here? I submit to you: this is victim
talk. It will conspire with all slights and hurts experienced by real
families to produce a poisonous social environment.

And social security (relations between the generations) is just one example.
How about about what is considered fair between racial and ethnic groups;
between the educationally advantaged and disadvantaged; between the employed
and the unemployed (and the _under_employed: new Ph.D's take note)? The
welfare reform debate, in some places, has already turned ugly. The
prospects for broad-scale civil unrest are clearly evident. Sentiments now
espoused by radical minorities could be more broadly expressed in the future.
What might anthropology have to say about all this? (The sociologist
Francis Fukuyama's new book on the decline of trust in America deals with
these issues.)

In my opinion, there is a very real chance that government (in the form of
more or bigger social control activity) will have to pick up the pieces.
Voluntary associations may be a way to go in providing mutual assistance,
but for various reasons it may be hard to turn back the clock to the 1920's,
for example, when the activities of outfits like the Knights of Pythias, the
Sons of Italy, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (that's what I said)
dwarfed those of organized charity and governmental poor-relief bureacracies.
(Then there were 10,000 fraternal orders in the US with roughly 100,000
lodges; it's estimated that roughly 30 percent of all adults over 20 were
members.) It would be an oversimplification to say that the state somehow
"destroyed" these organizations (in fact, some, like the Elks, have thrived).
Their demise is more complex, conditioned by economic forces.

Concerning the commodification of relationships. In light of the above it
could reasonably be asked: is individualism being "oversold" (commodified) to
the public (hence hyper-individualism with its "industries"), or is the
commodification spiral itself made possible by hyper-individualism? I
suggest that the two interact and reinforce one another.

Well, I've rambled on about as long as even I can tolerate. But I did want
to both address and raise some issues. It's hard for me to attempt much more
than hit-and-run discussion at this point. I've got another project going
that I absolutely has to be attended to. This e-mail stuff is very time
consuming (but a lot of fun).

Mike Cahill